Review of :Interior Sculpture: poems in the voice of Camille Claudel by Kathleen Kirk
Chicago: dancing girl press, 2013. 30 pgs. $7.00
Interior Sculpture is an artful item in itself—the dark, subtle green cover is adorned with Camille Claudel's "The Walz" (1893), a sculpture depicting a romantic embrace in grayscale, and the ends of the pages are slightly torn—which allows readers to recognize the action of reading and appreciate the book as art object.
Rightfully so, as the tight set of twenty poems are written in the perspective of French artist Camille Claudel, whose heart-wrenching life story included a tumultuous and passionate relationship with Auguste Rodin and thirty years confined in a psychiatric hospital by her brother, even when hospital staff frequently proposed her release.
Indeed, Kathleen Kirk, in few words, gives honor to this woman's experience (along with many others in history, undoubtedly) with raw language and complementary description using the artist's medium.
The first poem, "Study in Fog," introduces the artist's utter confusion when in the psychiatric hospital, but not a loss of passion for her craft "Was I mad? Or was it sane / to hold my heart away from the flame?...Now I would open all the windows, / even if the fog came rolling in, white / as a marble hand. . . " Readers experience with the simple query and imagery the artist's struggle with what is real (7).
We continue to see how her self is truly realized through her art in "Interior Sculpture," as Kirk delightfully takes readers through the artist's bliss in reference to the cover piece:
". . . I feel your breath on my cheek, my neck.
And how shall I whisper this in marble or bronze?
I am the waltz! I am the dance!
. . .
This tender bending in to you, this movement
in the still moment of bronze, the supple
now, my arms must find again in art. . . "
Here, the artist's utter passion and purity of spirit through the act of creation is evidenced through Kirk's seemingly effortless rhythmic language of thoughts.
Her confinement is all the more heartbreaking as evidenced in "After Rodin," as the artist sees herself as a literal "lump of clay, unfinished, underworked. . . " The artist despairingly cannot now "shape myself from the formless cold / into the waltzing fire." (9)
As the romance and heartbreak are written through clay, so it seems, is her breakdown. In "Broken Figure," Kirk narrates the 1907 destruction by the artist of all of her subsequent work:
". . . I take my hammer and crush a figure—plaster
or dream, remembered or real. Equally dust.
There is pity in this: "I can't stand the screams of all these creatures anymore. . . "
With few words, Kirk suggests that the artist is rebelling and sacrificing herself at the same time as losing herself, literally and artistically, now seeing herself as "the torso of a woman crouching." (11)
"The Little Chatelaine," referring to a bust of a young girl (or "mistress of the household" as translated), is a poem that speaks more apparently to being a woman, as the speaker alludes to the struggle of gender, identity and motherhood:
"I could have braided her golden
hair—not plaster, but supple strands.
But I pulled the living girl
from stone with my own rough hands.
This is my genius!
This is what I do!
The earth is womb and from womb
comes clay and from clay God makes
a man—not a woman, not me."
Readers wonder, did she want to be a mother? Was she happy being an artist or is she expressing anger? Is she blaming her gender for her confinement? We sense this, too, was part of her struggle, as evidenced in the next couple of poems about how she felt others hated her, and gossiped about her, exhibiting her rebellious side:
". . . I was working small from poverty, not some decorative / impulse in myself. What do you think I was? / Didn't I take the greatest risk of all, and lose? Who are you to mock, to judge?"
Though the story is heartbreaking and full of intimate despair, Kirk gives a bit of hope in the ending poem, "Clotho," referencing Claudel's 1893 sculpture of the youngest of Three Fates who decided human destiny, part of Kirk and Rodin's dialogue about the depiction of old age. The figure in the piece is adorned with a heavy head of hair which Kirk refers to pointedly in the piece:
". . . hair like rags, the twisted fate
of men in search of gold or beauty, women
wanting love, stability, or child. We can't
get what we want. That's what destiny is:
The ribcage showing.
. . . The reverse
is just as true. Nothing is wasted. All
is golden squander."
So, Kirk seems to suggest, as with art, we are left with perspective—and Kirk delivers keenly that of Claudel, honoring her experience. She displays the significant role of art to the artist, and to the viewer, as life and humanity reverberates through its production, process and execution, and sometimes, destruction. Interior Sculpture should be read by anyone interested in how artists think, why they create, and why its important that they (including writers) do—for themselves, and for the rest of us to further appreciate and understand the human experience. Thanks to Kirk, Claudel's voice and experience comes alive in this all around artful book.
You can purchase :Interior Sculpture: here.
Sally Deskins is an artist and arts writer specializing in women and feminist writers and artists. Her recent writing has been published in Stirring, Prick of the Spindle, Gently Read Literature, and Cactus Heart Literary Magazine. She recently illustrated Intimates & Fools (poetry by Laura Madeline Wiseman, Les Femmes Folles Books, 2014). She lives in Morgantown, WV with her husband and two children. She can be found online at femmesfollesnebraska.tumblr.com/ and sallydeskins.tumblr.com/.